SAN DIEGO — After more than a week on the road, and after a week mulling over their loss to Green Bay, and after several days in the San Diego sunshine, the Patriots headed back to New England late Sunday night, the long cross-country flight home more palatable thanks to their 23-14 victory over the Chargers.
Winning makes everything better, even a six-hour flight. Especially a six-hour flight.
“We’ll have some fun tonight,” Devin McCourty said of the Patriots’ return to Massachusetts. “We had it the other way a few years ago, after that loss to Seattle. That was not fun.”
The hospitality Patriots players said they felt during their week in San Diego extended to kickoff: Qualcomm Stadium might as well have been Gillette Stadium, given how loud it got in certain situations.
As Tom Brady came onto the field for warmups, he pointed to the large swaths of fans in the seats behind the visitors’ bench, encouraging them to cheer louder.
They did, throughout the game, and things were nearly as loud for the San Diego offense on third down as it was for New England’s — not exactly a home-field advantage for the Chargers.
The victory, combined with the Dolphins’ loss at home to the Ravens, means that the Patriots can clinch another AFC East title — their sixth straight and 10th in 11 years — by beating Miami next Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Julian Edelman sealed the win with a 69-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter, slipping through an ankle tackle attempt, then outrunning the defense for his third touchdown of the season.
“Great play,” Brady said. “It was a good opportunity for us to throw because they were pretty heavy on the run. We found a little spot to throw it and Julian made a great catch and run. We needed that type of play at that time of the game, and the defense took over from there.”
The Patriots had stagnated offensively in the third quarter, going three-and-out on their first four possessions. They began making progress as the fourth began, and put a field goal on the board early to reclaim the lead at 14-13, their first since taking a 3-0 lead in the first quarter.
The Patriots put together one of their better defensive performances of the season: the Chargers entered converting 47.5 percent of their third-down attempts, but were held to just 4 for 13 as the Patriots got sacks (four in all) at key times and generally kept Philip Rivers off-kilter.
“That’s huge, just getting the off the field and giving the offense a chance,” McCourty said. “Time of possession is big; if we are on the field all night, it’s tough to get the win.”
Video: Bill Belichick proud of Patriots’ effort in San Diego
“We played well,” Vince Wilfork said. “As a defense, we knew we’d need to play well against Philip Rivers and this offense. Guys came ready to play tonight. Being here in San Diego gave us a chance to bond, watch extra film, hang out, and talk about football.”
The defense seemingly got stronger in the third quarter, after a McCourty pick-six came off the board. Tight end Ladarius Green was drilled by Brandon Browner as he caught the ball, and it popped up in the air. McCourty was in the perfect spot to grab it and appeared to return it for a touchdown.
But Browner was flagged for unnecessary roughness, as the officials declared Green to be a defenseless receiver.
Browner’s teammates loved the hit, and on replay, it was clear it was not a helmet-to-helmet hit. But the flag stood. Five plays later, Akeem Ayers picked off Rivers on a pass across the middle for Keenan Allen, ending the threat of a Chargers score.
“They were phenomenal,” Brady said of his defensive teammates. “That was the key to the whole game, the way the defense played. We turned it over a couple of times, and we always hate doing that, but the blocked punt was huge, the interception was huge, and we kind of got momentum once we kicked the field goal [to go ahead, 16-14].”
Video: Tom Brady on the Patriots’ comeback victory
After allowing a first down on third-and-5 during San Diego’s first possession, the Patriots did much better four plays later, with Jamie Collins coming through the middle untouched and dropping Rivers for a 7-yard loss, forcing a punt.
When the Patriots got the ball, they moved with relative ease after two shaky plays: LeGarrette Blount was dropped for a 2-yard loss and a quick swing pass to Rob Gronkowski (8 receptions, 87 rugged yards and a touchdown) was incomplete. But facing third and 12, Edelman (8 receptions, 147 yards, 1 TD) came down with the ball for a 19-yard gain. Then the Patriots advanced to the 1 by mostly running the ball, using Blount, Shane Vereen, and Jonas Gray.
Blount got them a yard from paydirt with a 9-yard carry, but the second- and third-down plays were passes, with Brady sacked on third down. Stephen Gostkowski lined up for the short field goal, and it was blocked —at least, that’s what appeared to happen.
As Brandon Flowers was sprinting toward the end zone with the loose ball, the Patriots took note of the yellow flag on the grass. Shareece Wright, who blocked the kick, had jumped offside, negating the play.
Gostkowski converted on his second chance.
But the 3-0 lead became a 14-3 deficit quickly: Rivers led the Chargers on an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, targeting cornerback Browner on the last two plays.
Browner, who was whistled for a facemask penalty on the first play of the drive, was covering Malcom Floyd on back-to-back passes in the end zone, the second of which Floyd caught for the touchdown.
Brandon LaFell appeared to have a first-down conversion just a couple of minutes later, but he had the ball knocked out of his grasp by Jahleel Addae. Fellow safety Darrell Stuckey picked up the fumble and returned it for a touchdown.
It was the first time a Patriots offensive player not named Tom Brady turned the ball over.
Another Patriots possession led to a second red-zone field goal, with a run called on first down, and failed pass attempts on second and third downs.
The Patriots’ defense and special teams combined to get the ball back in short order.
Rob Ninkovich brought down Rivers from behind when he tried to run on third down, forcing the Chargers to punt from well inside their territory, and Brandon Bolden blocked Mike Scifres’s punt. The ball went out of bounds at the San Diego 25, giving the Patriots a short field to work with.
Scifres was injured on the play, and was carted off with his left arm wrapped tight to his trunk.
The Patriots scored in four plays, with Gronkowski getting the touchdown, his 10th of the season. He is the first tight end in league history with 10 or more touchdowns in four straight seasons.
The Chargers were forced to punt late in the first half, but the Patriots had another red zone miscue; Brady was picked off on an underthrown pass by linebacker Manti Te’o near the goal line.
After their training camp-type week together, headed home to the New England cold and with a Nor’easter in the forecast, McCourty said, “I’m going to miss the weather. We have to go home sometime; may as well go home with a win.”